On the business side of costume design, there are few things more important than contracts. Okay, truth be told, budgets are more important, but contracts are what guarantee your employment.
I am a full-time freelancer, so it seems like I am constantly signing contracts. In triplicate.
Because they are generated by each theatre company, I really have to read them closely. There is no such thing as a “standard contract” for designers.
Different Kinds of Contracts
Some theatre contracts are long, extensive documents that have everything from how much you’ll be paid, to how many comp tickets you get, to whether the theatre retains the right to use photos of your work in their advertising next season.
Some theatres include the budget, everything that you as the designer will be producing with that budget, and whether dry cleaning costs are covered in the budget. (By the end of a run, costumes are pretty smelly, so they do have to be cleaned, and most of them – particularly for period shows – have to be dry cleaned, which can get pricey.)
I’ve also had contracts that are nothing more than an email from the artistic director saying, “We are hiring Jessica to design costumes for ‘play X’ and we will pay her $1.” (Okay, so I DO get more than $1, but we just don’t figure out the hourly wage … that’s just too depressing. Let’s just say you don’t do theatre to get rich.)
While that last one may seem like the “best” of the options – the whole less-is-more outlook on life – it’s saying a whole lot through what it doesn’t include.
Do they not include more text because they’ve never had a problem? (Most of the niggly stuff in any sort of contract comes from either problems theatres have had in the past, or an over-involved lawyer who sits on the Board of Directors.) It’s often a good situation if the simple contract is borne of this reasoning. It probably indicates that they’re pretty easy to work with, they work hard to hire well (meaning that the actors and other designers I will work with are probably pretty cool), and if problems come up they’ll be more interested in working together to find solutions than to look at me expectantly.
But there’s another possibility for the simple email-type contract. They might be a brand new theatre company that doesn’t know any better. These situations can be scary for me as the designer, because if the theatre is very young and those running it are relatively inexperienced in the world of professional theatre, you can pretty much lay odds that chaos will ensue. (That said, I’ve had some absolutely fabulous experiences with brand new theatre groups. I’m just saying that it’s a much larger gamble to take on work with an untried group of theatre people. We are, after all, Theatre People!)
What I Look For
There are some specific lines I look for in every contract that is sent to me. Here are some examples:
“The designer will be paid a flat fee for time and materials.”
I will not sign a contract that has this phrase in it. This is a personal choice, and obviously everyone should make their own decisions about what they will and will not do, but here is my rationale. Even if I plan everything out, and save enough of that budget for my “fee,” the director or producer can still come in at the last minute and demand that I change everything. Because of the way that clause is written, I have no option but to loose my fee money. I am legally bound to do so.Setting aside debates about artistic integrity, it’s totally inexcusable to expect me (or any professional designer) to work for free. Some might go so far as to call it robbery. It’s a bad way of doing business with designers. If you’re a designer, I’d encourage you not to agree to that. If you’re a producer or director who has that in your contract, I’d encourage you to take it out. It’s just not cool.
“If the designer goes over budget, the overage amount will be deducted from their design fee.”
Although it sounds very much the same, this phrase gives me some grounds to stand on with the director and producer. If I stay within budget, but the director or producer come in at the last minute, demaning a complete re-working of the show, I can refuse on budgetary grounds. I can appeal to the artistic director or whomever is next up the theatrical food chain. It’s less likely that I will be forced to go over budget. This gives us room to talk. No doubt, some lawyer out there would say that I’m out of luck with either of these sentences in a contract, but it has been my experience that this latter situation typically has other language in it providing for arbitration in the event of disagreements that protects me. So there is a tangible difference.
Now hopefully I always work with good, kind people, who won’t try and take my design skills for their show without paying for them, but as someone once told me, “Contracts aren’t there for when the good people are running the show, they are there for when the good people are hit by a bus and the evil people take control of the theatre.”
The last thing I would say about contracts is this: NEVER work without one.
Not even for a friend.
One of the good things about contracts (busses and evil people notwithstanding) is that they set expectations for both sides. I know what to expect in terms of time, support, budget, and all manner of things. The theatre or film production company knows what they’re paying me, what I’m delivering for the money they’re paying me, deadlines and other details. If we’re all clear up front about these things, there’s far less room for “interpretation.”
My tale of woe as it pertains to an uncontracted agreement …
I once agreed to “help” with a show that couldn’t afford to formally hire me to design. I agreed to just be a “consultant” to the director. My understanding of this was that I would come up with a Costume Plot (the subject of a future blog entry) and he would find the costumes himself. But when I didn’t do both tasks – the Plot as well as finding the costumes, the director/producer was angry.
Clearly his understanding of our unwritten agreement was very different from my own. See the problem?
Trying to be a good business person, I suggested that he simply not pay me for the work I had done. To his credit, he paid me half of what we had agreed upon. But this left both of us with a less than plesant memory of the experience. No one wins. Yuck.
The moral of this story is that if you’re moving into the professional realm of theatrical or film design, get your agreement in writing. Nothing else counts.
Anyone else have to learn this the hard way? Or is it just me?
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